Millions of looms across the country weave cotton, silk and other natural fibres, with many states offering distinct designs

Indian hand-woven fabrics have been in existence since time immemorial. Poets during the times of the Moguls equated muslin to woven air, running water and morning dew.

Even now, millions of looms across the country weave cotton, silk and other natural fibres.

In the world of hand looms, the most popular are Madras checks from Tamil Nadu, ikats from Andhra and Orissa, tie and dye from Gujarat and Rajasthan, brocades from Banaras, jacquards from Uttar Pradesh, daccai from West Bengal and phulkari from Punjab.

Despite regional distinction, there has been a great deal of technical and stylistic exchange.

From Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Gujarat come the ikats. The ikat technique in India is commonly known as patola in Gujarat, bandha in Orissa and pagdu bandhu in Andhra Pradesh.

In the ikat tie and dye process, the designs in various colours are formed on the fabric either by the warp threads or the weft threads or by both.

The threads forming the design are tied and dyed separately to bring in the desired colour and the simple interlacing of the threads produces the most intricate designs.

It is said that ikat was first created in India and later taken to Indonesia - the only other country with an ikat tradition.

Untwisted silk thread

The famed Coimbatore saris developed while imitating the chanderi pattern of Madhya Pradesh. The baluchar technique of plain-woven fabric brocaded with untwisted silk thread, which began in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, has taken root in Varanasi.

Their craftsmen have also borrowed the jamdani technique. Besides its own traditional weaves, there is hardly any style of weaving that Varanasi cannot reproduce.

Woolen weaves are no less subtle. The Kashmiri weaver is known the world over for his pashmina and shahtoosh shawls, which are unbelievably light and warm.

Kashmir and Karnataka are known for their mulberry silk. In fact, India is the only country producing all four commercially known silks - mulberry, tasser (tussore), eri and muga.

Gaining popularity in the United States and Europe, tasser is found in the remote forests of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

Eri, another kind of raw silk, is soft, dull and has a wool-like finish. Assam is the home of eri and muga silk. Muga is durable and its natural tones of golden yellow and rare sheen become more lustrous with every wash.

Traditional Indian art

Textile weaving is a traditional Indian art that has been passed on from one generation to another.

In the 1970s, young people looked to the West for inspiration. Staid shalwar-kameezes or kurtas with churidars and the sari - always in fashion - dominated the scene.

Fed up with the unimaginative styles, the Indian woman went back to her roots - to the villages and brought back many ideas.

The magic, as everyone discovered, lay in the fabrics and colours. The India of the 1990s found her woman earthy, vibrant and colourful.

Vidhi Singhania is a designer who grew up with a fondness of textiles and cherished the sari as the most versatile mode of dress for the Indian women.

Having married Nidhipati Singhania in 1982, she moved to Kotah, Rajasthan in 1994. She has worked closely with weavers in Kotah and helped revive the humble Kotah saree into a contemporary fashion statement.

Kotah is a fine sheer natural weightless material ideal for a warm climate, with 20 per cent silk input.

Hand-woven with gold threads, it has an ethereal quality. Heavy Kotah brocade can take a weaver up to four months to create. Simpler designs may take 10 to 15 days.

“I can be considered first a revivalist of Indian handlooms and second a designer,” Vidhi says.
Indian hand-woven textiles form the backbone of her work. Vidhi’s passion and determination has enabled her to bring hand looms to an international level.

“Everything is done in an age-old manner, the setting of patterns, graph-making, dyeing of the yarn and the setting of the loom,” she said.

The introduction of power looms brought a lot of cheaper imitation Kotah with synthetic yarns into the market.

“But those who know Kotah, can feel the difference,” she says.

“Weaving is a family effort in Kotah. The mother gets up and the daughter takes over the weaving, families cook and sleep in the same room. I’ve always loved fabrics, but now when I look at something, I know the amount of labour and skill that has gone into each weave,” Vidhi says.

Vidhi spent nearly a decade reviving the art of Kotah. It has come a long way from being a humble home wear to a fabric of elegance.

Vidhi’s passion and triumph lies in her sarees. She feels it is the most structured unstitched garment that lends instant dignity and sensuality to women.

Artisans around the country use the finest fabrics, such as pure silk and cotton, to produce hand-woven fabrics for cushion covers, bed covers, cotton rugs, woolen rugs, stoles, scarves and silk dresses.

They also deal in 100 per cent jute fabrics and jute blended fabrics. Anu Aggarwal, an artist, recalls how a decade ago, while touring some Gujarati villages she saw a woman wearing a bandhini odhni.

“I made inquiries to find out who made these odhnis. Today, they are all the rage,” she says.

For the first time, the fabrics were used not only to make saris but also to make garments. Since each weave is different from the other, every hand-woven garment is unique.

While weavers experiment with designs, fashion designers experiment with styles. The blend of hand-woven fabric and traditional styles has produced an exciting range of garments.

Not only fabrics but embroidery, such as chikankari, zardozi and kantha, is used in experiments. The zardozi work once done only with gold or silver threads on silk is now embroidered on cotton with colourful threads.

Designers are trying out different permutations and combinations in styles, colours and fabrics. The idea behind reviving regional crafts was to keep these crafts alive and provide employment to the craftsmen.

Several boutiques are producing authentic goods and have employed village craftsmen. The other outlets are the government emporiums, which sell authentic material.

In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi revived khadi, a handspun hand-woven fabric, as it provided employment to many.

Representing pre-colonial India, the fabric, whether cotton or silk, provided, until the mid-19th century, everything from bullock cart linings to bed sheets and linen.

By the time India became independent in 1947, it had a spinning and weaving workforce of several million. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission was set up in 1956 in response to the need for support and development infrastructure. Today, this eco-friendly fabric competes with niche brands.

Rural craftsman

It has become a link between the rural craftsman and the urban consumer. The recently renovated Khadi Gram Udyog Bhawan’s designer outlet has a variety of handspun, hand-woven garments. Designer Neeru Kumar sells under the brand name Tulsi.

“Khadi is no more considered cheap, coarse and old-fashioned. I pl